Practicing piano isn’t just about advancing “faster.” The following elements of development that occur through regular piano practice won’t happen at all if the only time the piano is touched is during the lesson.
Strong, dexterous fingers.
Many students when they are first learning to play piano find it difficult not to collapse the joint at the end of their finger (the distal interphalangeal joint) when pressing down a key. Playing with collapsed finger joints makes it very difficult to play fast and nearly impossible to achieve a clear, even tone. Careful, daily attention early on during practice is required to build strength in these joints. (Note: this does not mean turning the hand into a “claw” – the hand must remain relaxed, in the shape it is when you drop it by your side, but without the joints collapsing. Tricky isn’t it!)
Relaxed back, shoulders , wrists and hands.
Playing piano involves using the back, shoulders, wrists and hands. Weight is channelled from the pianists back all the way to their fingers, which is how pianists can get huge sounds out of the piano for a sustained period without tiring or cramping their hands.
If any of these muscles are tensed, this breaks the flow of energy, and makes it much harder on the body to play piano, and more likely that the wrong muscles are going to be engaged to move the fingers.
A pianist who is treading water in their piano lessons often hunches their shoulders up to their ears, holds their breath and tenses everything, which is not only very tiring but also sometimes causes cramping and activation of the wrong set of muscles.
Sight reading involves scanning the music for the key signature, time signature, tempo and dynamic markings, and then playing the music with all of these things taken into consideration, along with executing rhythms correctly, recognizing patterns (scales, arpeggios and sequences), and of course playing the correct notes, all the while scanning ahead for potential hazards to ensure a steady beat is maintained. This is quite an involved process!
Adults who had piano lessons in childhood and sat exams to quite an impressive grade level generally fall into two camps: the first now can’t play much more than “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, and the second are still very competent players. It is generally sight reading ability or lack thereof that separates these two groups of pianists.
Like learning to read any language, learning to read music isn’t going to happen without daily effort.
Practicing a musical instrument uses both the left and right sides of the brain, which strengthens the band of fibre that connects them (the corpus callosum). Numerous studies have indicated that the process of practicing a musical instrument – regardless of musical talent – can boost a person’s IQ by up to seven points.
The brain needs to create lots of new motor memory pathways for a person to become proficient in piano. Some examples of activities at the piano that use muscle memory include being able to compress keys in different finger formations and with varying touches, recognising a note on a page and then instantly compressing that key on the piano with the correct finger, and making big leaps with the hands across the piano without skipping a beat. These will not be effectively committed to memory if they are only practiced during one short lesson per week.
When a student doesn't have basic movements committed to their muscle memory the struggle they undergo to make their hands do what they want them to do is very visible – it almost looks as though an invisible demon is trying to make their hands do something they don’t want them to do. Lack of solid muscle memory often results in lots of silly and frustrating mistakes, with the messages sent from the brain to the fingers getting scrambled and causing the fingers to trip over each other or flat out do the opposite of what their owner intended them to do!
A shift from conscious to subconscious knowledge.
This is a combination of not only muscle memory but of all the skills required to be able to play piano (e.g. sight reading, aural skills, music theory). At the beginning of piano lessons it may all seem very easy and basic to a degree that may look like practice is not required to progress, but at this point the groundwork is being laid for more complicated concepts.
If basic knowledge (i.e. keyboard geography, finger numbers, note names, interval recognition, correct hand shape and simple articulation and dynamic skills) can’t be executed on a subconscious level – in the same way that you sit on a chair and know it’s a chair without racking your brains for what it’s called and what you do with it – the student will be juggling too many things in their head and unable to take on new, more difficult skills.
Lots of new co-ordination skills have to be learnt to be able to play the piano. The beginning pianist has to learn how to do different things with their left and right hand at the same time – different rhythms and notes, different articulations (i.e. one hand holding onto long notes while the other hand plays short, jumpy notes), and on a more advanced level, different dynamic levels not only for each hand but for different fingers within the one hand.
Also at a more advanced level is the skill of pedalling, which involves coordinating movement of one or both arms with one or both feet.
Broader aesthetic tastes.
99% of the time, a child who says “I only like pop music” hasn’t been exposed to enough jazz, blues, musical theatre, baroque music etc to be able to qualify that statement. It is only through experiencing many examples of a wide variety of styles of music that one can develop their own unique musical taste. A broad exposure to musical genres builds the ability to discern the quality of a piece of music, as well as the capacity to substantiate personal preferences, rather than just going along with the crowd.
A piano student who practices regularly will get a much higher volume of exposure to different genres of music than one who doesn’t practice, through sheer quantity of repertoire they are learning.
Able to pick up new concepts with minimum repetition.
Due to the integration of all of these factors, a student who is practicing regularly also won’t need to learn as many pieces that drill a single concept. They can skip simpler exercises and may only need to learn 4 or even as little as 2 pieces that introduce a new concept. This is not the case for the student who rarely practices – they may need to learn 8 to 16 pieces that stagnate on that one concept, and still not be as comfortable with their newly acquired knowledge as the practicing student who only learnt 2 pieces that introduced the concept.
Access to a large repertoire of pieces that are fun and easy to play.
Students should be mastering at least one piece every week, and the beginner student (7 y/o+) who is only learning pieces of 8 or so bars in length should be completing 3-6 pieces per week.
The pianist who can walk up to a piano and rattle off 30 to 50 pieces from memory is going to be getting loads more enjoyment out of their efforts than the pianist who can’t play a single piece from memory and is struggling over the same 3 pieces for months at a time, with each lesson feeling like ground hog day.
At the end of the day, people make music because they want to feel good or help lift the spirits of others, and practicing piano is like building a bank of free therapy – an extra coping mechanism privy to musicians, as well as working on a skill that can entertain, let you get inside of historical events from an artistic perspective, is the only language that is understood by people from every nation around the world, and gives your brain a workout!
The ability to move past the mechanism of advanced pieces to feel the emotions, the art, the spirit and the soul of the music.
Music is a language, and it takes time and effort to become fluent in it. When children are learning how to read they sound out each word in a robotic voice devoid of meaning, and the disjointed nature of a struggling musician’s playing exhibits that same lack of expression and understanding of what the composer intended to communicate through their piece.
Once playing the piano becomes a natural extension of self rather than a laborious act of will, the student can begin expressing their unique musical voice, and awakening to the depths of emotion and human experience present in truly transcendental music.
As Philip Johnston (author of The Practice Revolution) says, you only see your piano teacher for a short time one day a week. The real development occurs in the 6 days in between the lessons.